Governments in difficulty frequently announce unpopular decisions when the news media is saturated with coverage of a headline-grabbing story.
Space is usually very limited on such occasions and astute information officers hope their troublesome announcements will merit no more than a few sentences tucked away on an inside page.
Across Whitehall this routine has been imbedded within ministerial offices but the true masters of “burying bad news” are Brexit-supporting newspapers which have become so partisan these manipulative tricks are now an everyday occurrence.
Slavish support for Boris Johnson’s general election mantra of “Get Brexit Done” has necessitated the same finessing of what the Tory press presents as news – or dismisses as unimportant or leaves out altogether.
Surveys, decisions or events that challenge the justification for the UK’s departure from the EU are still being ignored, buried or distorted, just as they were in the 2016 EU Referendum campaign and have continued to be during the UK’s unending post Brexit trauma.
High on the list for avoidance are damaging economic or trade related statistics.
Shock announcements about the demise of iconic companies or well-known High Street brands do create headlines, but far more worrying business trends about investment or employment are reduced to a few paragraphs unless they can somehow be twisted to into a “good news” story.
When it comes to Britain’s economic fortunes post Brexit, woeful under-reporting of the fate awaiting the British car industry is a classic example of the double standards of pro-Tory titles.
A succession of grim announcements in early October about the future of Nissan’s Sunderland plant was topped by the announcement that the company could no longer guarantee it would host production of the new Qashqai model and that it was having to warn that the business could not survive a no-deal Brexit.
Unlike the sombre press coverage elsewhere, the Sun ignored concerns about the long-term sustainability of 6,000 jobs and reduced the story to three paragraphs under the jokey headline, “Juke box clever”, a reference to the fact that at least production of the Juke would continue at Sunderland. (Sun, 11.10.2019)
The Sun repeated the same sleight of hand when Elon Musk announced that he had chosen Berlin as the site for his Tesla battery factory because “Brexit made it too risky” to build the plant in Britain.
“Tesla in Berlin” was the Sun’s headline (14.11.2019) over a five paragraph story on page 49 that failed to make any mention of why Musk could not take the risk of investing in the UK or the fact that the British car industry had been pinning its hopes on securing the Tesla plant to help boost the UK’s electric car production and ownership.
Downsizing of the car industry is continuing apace – 10,000 redundancies since the referendum and more to come.
With the labour and trade union movement so divided about Brexit and the Tory press so indifferent, the workforce have been cut adrift in an industry that in recent years had been one of the few successes in British manufacturing.
Whenever possible, these same techniques can be used to downplay embarrassing revelations or scandals about prominent Boris Johnson supporting politicians.
The shaming of arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg after his insensitivity over the failure of some of the Grenfell Tower victims to reach safety was widely reported across many media outlets but not in the Brexit press where it was shunted inside, towards the bottom or side of the page.
Front-page splashes in the I newspaper and the Guardian were in sharp contrast to tabloid coverage. “Mogg’s Grovel” was the Sun’s headline (6.11.2019) over a small story tucked away at the bottom of pages 22 and 23. The headline on a single column story in the Daily Express made no mention of either Rees-Mogg’s name or the word apology.
Instead of the hounding that might have been expected in similar circumstances if it had been an acolyte of Jeremy Corbyn, the Tory tabloids have left Rees-Mogg largely undisturbed as he potters about in his north east Somerset constituency.
Illustrations: I newspaper, 11.10.2019; Sun, 11.10.2019.